Lawrence Cohen

Weatherhead Resident Scholar

2003–2004

‘Operability’: Sterilization and Transplantation as ‘Surgical Citizenship’ in India

Through the burgeoning anthropological research on kidney transplantation, global organ trafficking, and the shifting medical definitions of life and death, Lawrence Cohen is focusing on the operation itself as a social exercise with implications far beyond the realms of medicine or health.

In Operability: Sterilization and Transplantation as ‘Surgical Citizenship’ in India, Cohen is following an intuitive thread through the web of relationships emerging from the commodification of organ transplantation. His early analysis of arguments by “so-called bio-ethicists” describing voluntary kidney sales as “a win-win situation” or “a gift of life,” illuminated the broader economic and political context within which this primary transaction takes place.

Bioavailability, operability, and as-if modernity are some of the terms Cohen uses to describe unprecedented aspects of experience created by this culture of commodified bodies. A progression of medical advances reducing and finally suppressing the need for matching tissue has allowed neoliberal entrepreneurs to troll for organ sale “recruits” in marginal and impoverished populations who are deemed bioavailable.

Noting that a previous government’s use of sterilization for development purposes linked that operation to access to social services, Cohen posits operability as the degree to which a person’s relationship with the state is mediated through invasive medical commitment.

With the concept of as-if modernity, Cohen explores how an operation such as sterilization enables the state to by-pass its failed project of transforming the reasoned practice of “the masses”—perceived as capable of passion but not reason—and produce “a body that performs as if it had undergone a transformation of reason, as if it were inhabited by an ascetic will.”

Cohen is interested in the operation as a kind of citizenship, “and by that I mean how a person secures a future in relation to the state. In some cases, the scar becomes a passport one uses to imagine a certain kind of body-future for one’s self and one’s family,” he says.

“If the operation becomes a form through which constitutively marginal, pre-modern subjects can secure some form of modern participation in the nation-state, it may become a critical desideratum.” 

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley


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